In his collection of essays on the Seven Deadly Sins, Joseph Epstein singles out envy as the most painful of those sins to experience, with none of the ancillary pleasures that go along with, say, lust or gluttony. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, nobody wants to feel envious or to acknowledge feeling that way to others. Like hatred in our culture, it remains a taboo subject. It might be acceptable to admit you feel “jealous” that a friend has a trip planned to Europe or bought an expensive new pair of shoes; there’s a good chance you could one day go on such a trip yourself or add to your own wardrobe. Jealousy, in this modern sense, means: “I admire what you have and wish I could have something just like it, too.” Jealousy is the cleaned up, socially-acceptable version of envy.
Almost nobody would say, “I’m envious that you’re better-looking than I am.” You can’t change the way you or the other person looks. Few people would admit, “I’m envious that you have a spouse and children while I haven’t had a relationship in years.” To admit to such feelings acknowledges a level of hatred most personal relationships can’t tolerate. For the truth is that envy, the green-eyed monster, wants to destroy what it cannot have. The “solution” to envy — the way to find relief from the suffering it causes if you can’t have what you envy for yourself — is to make the envied object less worthy of that emotion, by spoiling or destroying it. Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes speaks of unbearable desire but also describes a psychic mechanism (spoiling) active when envy comes into play.
Another way to cope with envy, in fantasy, is simply to become the object of envy or take possession of it, as I described in my last point on merger fantasies. Once my client Jim and I understood the nature of those fantasies of merger and he started to separate from his idealized view of me, he began to feel intense envy. Instead of dreams where my beautiful wife and I gave glamorous parties in our glamorous home, now Jim brought in dreams where that home was destroyed by an earthquake or fire. In those dreams, his envy hid behind an apparently heartfelt concern for my loss; but as I pointed out to him, it
was his dream. He was the one who had destroyed my house, even if he seemed to feel sorry for me afterward.
In the school of thought in which I was trained, envy plays an important role in many forms of mental illness; I learned that when you uncovered envy you had reached bedrock. Over the years since I finished my formal schooling, I’ve come to think differently. Now I believe that while envy is an inescapable part of the human experience, if you’ve had a good-enough upbringing without too much damage, it’s manageable, more in the realm of “jealousy” as discussed above. When things go seriously awry, leaving a residue of basic shame, envy becomes intolerable. In that case, the recognition that someone has attributes or relationships that you don’t and might never have puts you in touch with unbearable shame. To make matters worse, people who feel such irreparable damage usually long for magical and ideal solutions to their difficulties; as a result, they tend to idealize the person they envy which further inflames that emotion. It’s a poisonous brew, toxic to the person who feels it and lethal for his or her relationships.
I’ll give a personal example from many years ago, one about which I still feel ashamed. At a dinner party at my home attended by several friends, including a successful writer who I very much envied as an aspiring writer myself, this writer mentioned a comment someone had recently made to her, about her having psychological and emotional “issues” with men, especially men in positions of authority. She said she didn’t understand why that person
would tell her such a thing as she didn’t believe there was any truth in it. I said, “I disagree. I think you have major issues with men.” She did, it was true, and what I said was extremely hurtful, especially given that I’m a therapist and when I offer such opinions, it carries some weight. On an unconscious level, I intended it to hurt, though I didn’t recognize it at the time — an expression of my envy for her. This was the second remark I discussed in my post about the art of the apology. In due course, I apologized but the damage was done. Our friendship never recovered.
Finding Your Own Way:
Have you ever damaged a relationship in the way that I did? Try to discover if envy motivated you. See if you can admit what you envy about the person. Do you justify yourself and your actions, try to make it seem as if the person deserved what you did or that it really was “no big deal”?
Whom do you envy now? Envy plays a large role in many people’s attitudes toward celebrities, as I discussed in an earlier post. I wasn’t surprised to hear the justifications people gave for Ricky Gervais’ cruel humor at the Golden Globe Awards. In a discussion forum I visited, many readers said they believed the injured celebrities should “stop whining,” that they had set themselves up as so “high and mighty” and deserved to be brought down to size. To me, this is envy talking. Do you envy rich and famous people and wish them ill? When you read about their misfortunes on the covers of supermarket tabloids, do feel a small thrill of glee?
What about your friends? Is there one among them who seems to have so much more than you do? How do you feel about that person? Have you ever secretly rejoiced when something bad happened to him or her? Most likely, it was the emotion of envy rearing its ugly, green-eyed head.